Thursday, March 8, 2012

Horses in Fiction: The Group Ride

Contrary to the fact that millions of horses around the world are pastured alone or stabled in individual stalls and runs, horses are herd animals, herbivores that nature gave strong herd instincts to foster survival. You seldom see the results of this in fiction (although C. J. Cherryh's excellent Foreigner series with its herdbound mecheita is a great exception). However, let me tell ya what really happens when you put horses in groups.

The very well-broken horse can generally be ridden anywhere without fuss. Not all horses achieve this standard. In my experience, unless the rider is paying attention, you will get interesting displays even from the most staid animals. We almost always see well-behaved horses on the silver screen. The hero's beautiful beast never misbehaves, never takes a swipe at another horse, never kicks, never so much as farts (on camera). In real life, only equines who have already established the herd pecking order get along this well, and even then you will find threatening behavior from a higher order animal toward one that invades its space by design or accident. They will still fight over food, with the dominant horse driving off the rest and sometimes guarding the feeder even after its belly is full. These rotten beasts are a misery to have around and sometimes must be fed or stabled separately to keep peace in the barnyard. Individual stalls were invented to prevent exactly these problems.

Say that your heroes have come together at the start of a journey and are equipping themselves with horses. Or perhaps they already each have their own mount, but none of those beasts have ever seen each other before. The usual get-acquainted routine between two strange horses involves much sniffing of each's other breath face to face, followed by one or both laying back its ears, tossing its head with a squeal and sometimes striking at the other one. Let me tell you how much it hurts when that hard hoof hits you at the speed and with the force a horse can shove it out there. They can do real damage to knees and legs but somehow seldom do.

If one horse does not proceed to kowtow to the other, acknowledging a more dominant animal, the fight may escalate to a kicking match, wherein both whirl around and go to flailing with both hind feet. This is exciting and dangerous and anyone who wades into the middle of it to separate the battling beasts is asking to get hurt. It does make for an excellent plot distraction or a bit of cruelty from a nasty lord toward a subordinate. As a test of courage or a way to get someone deliberately hurt, it's very plausible. I once saw two mares back toward each for twenty yards down a fence line to commence hostilities in this fashion.

The one good thing about this is that it seldom lasts long. The squealing and ugly ears part may go on for a few hours or a day or two, especially if the beasts are separated by a fence where they can't get a really satisfactory shot at the other one. The kicking lasts a couple of minutes, ending with a clear loser, who will generally forever after take the subordinate role to the other. That does not, however, keep the loser from turning around and laying into the next guy down on the totem pole. In this way the herd order is established without question, and it is only disturbed when a strange horse shows up.

Oddly, the subordinate beast may pine for the other when they are separated. Herdbound means exactly what it sounds like. Horses can stick like glue and become exceedingly anxious when separated, to the point they will balk at leaving the barn, whirl and try to run home unexpectedly, or nicker continuously hoping for an answer from their lost stablemate. Patience and a firm hand overcome this, but it is a bit pathetic to watch. A nice, subtle detail to incorporate into your story background is the fading sound of a horse looking for its friend, or the quiet battle between a rider and his new horse as it tries to turn back.

Two strangers meeting in the road to chat and ask directions are very likely to find their horses taking exception to each other without warning. Even well-trained animals who have been chided for this still have instincts at work in their narrow little heads. Look at crabby Shadowfax in this shot from the Two Towers. I love watching him take swipes at the other horses as they come over the hill. They are in his space and he doesn't like it. I have only ever seen one horse beat this ritual and that was my wonderful Saddlebred Beau, who never, ever was challenged even by dominate horses. He just walked up and thoughtfully began nibbling their manes, and that was that. Quite weird. Of course, it might have helped that he was generally much taller than they were...

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Kalup, another Saddlebred of mine, who was a pure original and an Alpha male of the first caliber. All he had to do was walk into a strange place and every other beast in the place practically got down on its knees to him. People used to marvel at it. He never even looked at the others. His body language spoke quite plainly: Don't mess with me. I am God. This urge to dominate, however, also made him no fun to ride in groups, because he always wanted to be in front. When forced to be back in the pack he pulled hard and fought the rein every step of the way, pranced and danced and swung his hindquarters around trying to make space for himself, and generally made himself a general pain in the patoot.

In any group of horses going down the road, you will invariably have:
  • The grazer, the one trying to snatch a bite of grass at every opportunity
  • The gawker, the one that will NOT pay attention to where it's walking, being far more concerned about the birds, the bees, the other horses, the wind...
  • The creeper, the one who just cannot be persuaded to stay in formation and incessantly crowds the horse in front of him
  • The ambler, the one who will not be forced to a faster pace upon pain of death
  • The road warrior, the one who cares not a farthing for the rest and will leave them in its dust
  • The born leader, who is not happy anywhere but out in front
  • The gutless wonder, who is convinced it is going to die and balks at every slightest hint of strangeness around it
  • The crab, who takes exception to the very existence of other horses around it and is not shy about expressing it
  • The Nervous Nellie, who is afraid of all the other horses and can't bear to be in proximity to any of them
The wonderful horse who just goes down the trail and ignores everyone else is worth its weight in oats.

Often it is the rider who incites thoughts of murder in his fellow travelers. It takes experience to set a pace for the group that will accommodate the whole bunch. The leader who lets his horse walk much faster than the others will earn the wrath of everyone with a slower nag. This inevitably spreads out the group and starts horses that haven't been taught to "walk out" jigging to keep up. This is not actually a trot but more of a prance, and it is a killer to the rider. A sideache is almost always the result, not to mention that if you can't control your horse in a group you invite retribution from the rider (and mount) in front of you as your horse anxiously crowds up on its tail. This can incite kicking, and if the horse in front is really serious, it will involve both hind hooves at a height that can actually catch the trailing rider in the shoulder or face or knee. A fight on a narrow trail is bad news. Most well-broken horses will display their displeasure over such social faux pas but not pursue it seriously. Once in a while, however, discipline is meted out, swift and sharp. The horse behind usually realizes his error pretty quickly. Unfortunately, many riders are not as swift on the uptake, so you have a continuous running fight down the road.

Stabling a bunch of strange horses together is a noisy affair the first night, and you might wake up to a few injuries. The cavalry picket line, with the horses tied side by side, was an efficient use of space and kept the animals handy for a quick saddle-up, but horses tied all night do not necessarily spend all night sleeping. Some spend it scheming how to get loose (Kalup), fretting about the horse next door, dreaming about food, or pawing large holes in the ground from boredom or nerves. The "MOM, he's looking at me!" syndrome comes into full play here.

A highline stretched between two trees can put a stop to a lot of this. Tie the horses far enough apart they can't kick each other, which will stop a lot of the self-preservative instincts about guarding food from each other, as well. The lead ropes attach to the highline well above the horse's head, so he can't step over it and tangle himself up in the night, solving many difficulties. Be aware that a bored horse may chew the rope in two or spend all night figuring out how to untie the knot (or, conversely, pull it so tight you spend an hour getting it loose). We took a horse to the mountains once we ended up chaining to a tree every night because he had eaten his lead rope and all the spares we had.

Just because your horses are herd animals doesn't mean you can happily turn out a bunch of loose horses together and expect them to stay together. The strangers may take off at high speed looking for home. Yours may stand and watch, or decide there are aliens around the corner and follow them at a dead run, discretion being the better part of horsey valor. I honestly don't care how well-trained your horse is, how well it ground-ties, or how much it loves you. Tie it up at night. Your neophyte travelers may make this mistake, to much plot mayhem, or even end up the beneficiaries of someone else's similar error. We've had loose horses show up in camp before.

The traditional warning for a kicker is a red ribbon tied to its tail, but unless you are writing in a modern setting I can't see using this as a warning to the rest of your group. For plot purposes it is far more fun to discover this trait without warning. Very, very often horses will go along for hours with nary a blink, and then something will surprise one (a bird flying up, a muddy spot, a stream crossing, a big scary rock) and suddenly you have mayhem. The horses in the rear take their cue from the ones in front. The leader's ears will always, always be up and he will be looking for the boogeyman around the next corner. The rest figure he's going to get eaten first and go to sleep, slogging along with heads down and ears drooping. When one spooks, all the rest instantly come to attention and may jump away from the commotion, leaving their unwary rider suspended midair. A frightened horse will leap straight into the one beside it, wheel in the face of the one behind it, or crowd the one in front of it, creating a nasty ripple effect in the whole herd. Inexperienced riders will scream and react inappropriately with reins and legs, confusing their horses, and in general create more problems.

You might think that the longer the ride, the more tired the horse, the fewer the problems. You'd be wrong. Kalup could keep it up all day. The horses trailing tiredly in the rear may become anxious as the rest pull farther ahead and begin to jig or trot or nicker. The less well-conditioned horses may begin to balk and droop, and the tireder they get, the crabbier they get. You can as easily have a fight at the end of the day as at the beginning, especially if they are very thirsty or hungry and sense an end to their misery.

Horses in groups have infinite possibilities for your plot beyond simply getting your heroes from Point A to Point B. The state of training in your horses and the experience of the riders can make or break the journey. And remember, there is a reason the cavalry put a clear horse-length between the animals when riding in file down the road! It spared a lot of unpleasantness from the remounts.

Got horsey anecdotes to share? By all means, leave a comment about your experiences. I'd love to hear them.

'Til next time!


Kathi said...

Excellent post!! Nothing irritates me more than authors not spending the time to research horses before adding them in to the mix.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Kathi, me too!

Sara A. Mueller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sara A. Mueller said...

The most dominant horses in the mare pasture at Crestones were never the 18h warmbloods that boarded there. It was the pony mare team. They didn't object at all to new herd members, but they were immediate targets to the poor, uneducated suckers who'd never met a pony before.

The first mare (taller at a mighty height of 14h) would meet the incoming new herd member's attempt to bully her away from the water with a nuclear strike level of returned threat that put the newcomer's delusions of height making right into an instant grave.

The newcomer who didn't learn from that experience would then move on to the even smaller pony mare (a truly lovely 'A' grade Welsh Pony who stood 13.2 if her feet were too long). This pony would have been minding her own business. The newcomer would feel a need to regain their self-respect, and always seemed to think that the Welsh pony was surely going to be an easy target. This set-too could last for days. Not because the newcomer kept trying, but because this tiny mare, once insulted, wouldn't let it rest with a simple drubbing. She'd pursue her foe with a tenacity that makes the Hatfield-McCoy feud look like a mild disagreement. The vendetta ended when the Tiny One felt sure the newcomer would have PTSD flashbacks of white ponies for life.

The motto in the mare pasture was definitely "Though she be but little, she is fierce.".

Sara A. Mueller said...

addendum - my sister corrected me. Gem, the Welsh pony, was 12.2.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

OMG, Sara, that is too funny, and too true. Our neighbors had a Shetland named Flea who put the fear of God into my brother's horse on sight. The horses were all loose in the big pasture when Flea pranced in, took one look, and set out after them, ears flat and teeth bared. Chief, who had thought himself the he-man of the herd, tucked tail and ran.

Unknown said...

I'd love some stories on horses that were friends as well. My friend Vickie managed a barn where a Shetland and a Pinto lived and pastured together in peace unless a newcomer challenged one of them. What the newcomer got was BOTH of them, teeth and hooves!

Eileen said...

Very interesting. Though I've been around horses a lot and done some trail riding with a leader, I didn't realize that tethering a group of horses overnight, etc., could be so challenging!
Re. the dominance issues, Walter Farley exploited that in the climactic match race scene of "The Black Stallion" for extra suspense. At that point, we all know the Black is super-fast and should be able to beat the two thoroughbreds, except one of them picks a fight with him just before they go into the gate, and it's ON. They strike at each other, and when it's over the Black has to race with a bleeding leg. Alec, his rider, notices and tries to stop him, but the Black is really after that chestnut thoroughbred now. You get the impression that he wins the 2-mile race mostly because he wants to whup that other horse's a** worse than anything! It puts an extra twist on the climax of the story.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Eileen, yes that is a very authentic scene, and one I can attest to personally. Kalup, being the dominate guy he was, wanted out in front, and right now. When I was eventing, if he so much as glimpsed another horse on course in front of us it became a running fight to keep his mind on the jump in front of him. The one and only fox hunt I ever did (at Ft Lewis, using a scent trail, not chasing a living critter), we, being not members of the hunt but invitees, of course were supposed to stay with the main body of riders. That *so* did not suit Kalup. After a couple of miles of him pulling my arms out I was about done. If we hadn't taken a breather for the horses about then I would have to pull out. Jockeys are really STRONG!

I must say that this costs the horse, though. Kalup did this to my dad once on a group trail ride and was so tired after 20 miles that when they got back to the trailers Kalup could only lean against Dad's, exhausted. After the fox hunt he was too tired to eat. But he would have kept it up until he dropped dead of exhaustion or got out in front, whichever came first.

Terri Bruce said...

Great post, as always. Definately a new rider with an unfamiliar horse (such as when changing horses at a rest stop/inn) can cause much mayhem in a group/pack. Whenever I go on a trail ride with a rented horse, the horse tries all its tricks and then quickly realizes I'm an experienced rider. The horse is always like "oh darn, I'm going to have to mind." My husband (who I thought, at that point, had never been on a horse in his life) and I went on a beach trail ride in San Diego. It ended up being just the two of us. Well our two horses both wanted to be in front and the trail was mostly single file width so our horses would take turns breaking into a jog to pass each other whenever the trailed widened up. Every time his horse broke into a jog, my husband went into a panic - he thought the horse was running away with him! After the trail ride was over, I learned he had gone on a pony ride as a kid, at a birthday party, and been thrown/fallen off and was still, to this day, terrified of horses! So the breaking into a jog really was incredibly terrifying for him! Poor husband!

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Terri,

Brave hubby! He agreed to ride with you, which says a lot for how much he loves you!